The 2009-10 Piper Jaffray Jazz at Orchestra Hall series begins this Sunday, March 14, with a performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. JLCO-bashing and Wynton-trashing are popular exercises among some jazz critics and bloggers, but this is a great band that keeps getting better.
At last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, I planned to skip their performance because so much else was going on concurrently and I had seen JLCO in March at Orchestra Hall. I popped in for half a second and couldn’t tear myself away. I watched the whole set, standing at the side of the stage.
Sean Jones has been JLCO’s lead trumpeter since 2005, a position similar to concertmaster in a classical orchestra. He is assistant professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, artistic director for the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra (the house band for the city’s shiny new August Wilson Center), and artistic director for the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. He leads his own quintet and is about to become part of bassist Marcus Miller’s band. And he’s working on his sixth album as a leader for the Mack Avenue label.
I caught up with Jones in Baton Rouge, La., the fourth stop on JLCO’s month-long, 19-cities spring tour.
MinnPost: When did you join Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and how did that happen?
Sean Jones: I joined in 2005. [Trumpeter] Ryan Kisor was in Japan and the band needed a sub. It just so happened I was in Wynton’s apartment when Ryan called. Wynton got off the phone and asked me what I was doing that summer. I went on tour with the band, after which Wynton asked me to be lead trumpeter. After some deliberation, I said yes.
MP: Why deliberation?
SJ: Being lead trumpeter is a lot of responsibility and a huge sacrifice. In a classical orchestra, the principal violinist is featured a lot of the time. It’s the opposite in a big band. The lead trumpeter is rarely featured. Your job is to lead the band.
MP: Don’t you share that position with Wynton?
SJ: Wynton is not the lead trumpet player. He plays fourth trumpet, which is actually the ideal place to be if you want to solo.
MP: You’re on tour for the whole month of March — starting at the Kennedy Center on March 1, ending in Tallahassee on March 29. What is it like to be on the road for an entire month?
SJ: When you’re on the road, everything washes together. You’re in one city today, another tomorrow. It’s easy to get lost in space, or to have a sense of suspended animation. For me, it helps being a professor, having a recording contract, and doing other things. As long as you can keep a grip on those things, you can keep a grasp on reality. Most people in this band have many other responsibilities.
MP: You told your Facebook fans that this is your “last official tour as a member of JLCO.” What exactly does that mean?
SJ: It means I’m stepping down from the band to focus on other endeavors. Ultimately, I know I’m not leaving. I’ll be back, we’ll see each other, and if they need me they can call me. There are a couple pieces Wynton wrote with me in mind.
MP: How do you feel about stepping down?
SJ: Bittersweet. I learned a lot in the band. One of the big things I learned, sitting next to Wynton, is how to take care of business and be an artist. How to raise money. How to work with a nonprofit organization. It’s not as glamorous as you think. It’s a constant sacrifice, a constant struggle to keep the organization afloat.
I’ve never known anyone like Wynton, someone that dedicated to something bigger than themselves. People think it’s all about him, and I can tell you right now it’s not about him at all. His life would be so much easier if he just went on the road with his quintet. He has sacrificed a lot of money and a lot of time to keep this organization and the people it supports afloat.
MP: We’ve all heard JLCO called “too traditional,” “too confining,” even “stuck in the past.” Care to comment?
SJ: Who’s putting those labels on Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra? You always have to look at the source. Most of the time, people don’t even go to a concert, so they don’t know what they’re talking about. Or they come with an agenda, and they listen to the music inside of their agenda. The only thing you can get out of that is that.
This band is evolving in a way I’ve never seen. It’s not the same band you saw a year ago. Every single player is arranging for the band now. Every single musician can solo. Wynton has actually taken a step further back to allow each individual member to shine. It’s almost like everybody is a leader in his own right.
I can see the difference in the band each year, progressively. We’re tighter, arrangements are taking on a life of their own, and the love that the guys in the band have for one another keeps growing. You don’t see that camaraderie in other bands. That’s probably the main reason I stayed. Not only is this band musically amazing, but at some point in time it stopped being a band and started looking like family.
MP: You’ve said you’re on a journey — a personal quest. What are you hoping to find?
SJ: I don’t know if I’m hoping to find anything. I’m open to the possibility of anything happening at any time. Accepting possibilities as they come, instead of trying to project what I want. In my mind, the future doesn’t exist anymore. It will take care of itself when we get there.
MP: We recently learned you’ll be coming back this way in June with your quintet for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival.
SJ: We’ll be playing some of the music we’ll be recording for the new CD. I think I’ll call it “Shades of Love.” All original music exploring the different sides of love. Love and relationships. Angry relationships. Falling out of love. God’s love. The loneliness that love can bring.
MP: When do you go into the studio?
SJ: Two days after that.